John Keats: Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Dressing

John Keats - Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Cream

Although many of John Keats’ most famous poems—Hyperion, Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes—include descriptions of lavish meals and crave-worthy feasts, the man who penned them is better known for eating nothing at all. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 24, Keats was prescribed a meager diet of bread, milk and anchovies; “the chief part of his disease,” his doctor wrote, “seems seated in his stomach.”

It was an especially grim sentence for a man who, only two years before, had an appetite that might kindly described as healthy, verging on hedonistic. “I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me,” Keats wrote in a letter from 1818, before he had taken ill. “I take a whole string of Pork sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s gingers.” Roast beef was a particular favorite; he once praised a dinner host for “carv[ing] some beef exactly to suit my appetite, as if I had been measured for it.”

Keats’ letters preserve his contributions to literary history, but they also contain a surprising moment in culinary history: one of the first mentions of a roast beef sandwich in print. On a walking tour of the U.K. in 1818, Keats worked up such a hunger that he fantasized about food. “[I] long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfry … and give me—a dozen or two capital roast-beef Sandwiches,” he wrote—perhaps the only Romantic poet to privilege lunch over lust.

While the first appearance of sandwiches in print dates back to 1762, they were often made with ham; it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that roast beef sandwiches were popular enough to be referenced by cookbooks. By the turn of the century, the dish had firmly established its place in the lunchtime pantheon; Keats’ fantasy meal was well ahead of its time.

By the end of his life, however, roast beef was be exactly that: a fantasy. “The distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving,” observed Keats’ Joseph Severn, who was tasked with monitoring the poet’s food intake. Severn himself was not so deprived. Imagine Keats’ agony if he could hear what his friend was eating just steps away: “I have 1st dish macarona [macaroni] … made of Flour with butter &c—very good—my 2nd dish is fish—and then comes Roast Beef or Mutton … every good thing—and very well cooked.”

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John Cheever: Turkey Monte Cristo Sandwich

Whenever I need to make idle chatter, talking about meals is generally a safe, friendly topic – unless that meal is brunch. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lunch and dinner are pretty universally well liked. And while the merits of breakfast have certainly been debated (despite being repeatedly chastised for not eating it, I somehow am still alive), brunch just gets people unusually riled up.  For the anti-brunch lobbyist, the idea of forking over $20 for a couple of eggs leaves a bad taste in the mouth that no bottomless-mimosa deal can wash away.

But even the most dedicated day drinkers can’t hold a candle to John Cheever, whose brunches consisted of “a secret slug of whiskey at eleven … two martinis at noon.” In his journals, Cheever’s infamous struggle with alcoholism plays out in the endless litany of gin and tonics, martinis, and nightcaps that make up his daily menu, starting well before noon. Food is an afterthought, usually appearing sandwich form. “I work until one, when I eat my sandwiches and take a rest,” Cheever wrote of his daily routine, a schedule that looks very virtuous when the drinks are edited out.

It wasn’t until Cheever moved to Los Angeles in 1960, to adapt D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl for the screen, that he began taking an interest in food – both as a way to stave off depression, and because it was all conveniently paid for by the studio. “I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of,” he told The Paris Review, “and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.”

For Cheever, a native New Englander, Hollywood didn’t have much going for it, except where sandwiches were concerned. He recounts in his letters the discovery of a new sandwich, like a rare and exotic bird: “For lunch Carl had something called a Monte Christo sandwich. This is made of three slices of French toast, turkery [sic] meat between the toast, the top sprinkled with powdered sugar and the whole cut into three sections, each looking like a Napoleon. This is eaten with a knife and fork. And this is my only life in Hollywood note for today.” For a sandwich aficionado at the time, this was a moment of revelation. It is also, I hesitate to add, an ideal morning meal after a long night of drink.

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